Fundamentals about Immigration We Should Never Forget

There will undoubtedly be colorful debate in the Senate next month as the Judiciary Committee voted yesterday to approve the new immigration policy proposed by the Gang of Eight. The 13 to 5 bipartisan vote was no small political achievement in and of itself given the wide range of opinions on both side of the isle; the Senate committee alone faced 300 amendments to their legislation.

On the other hand, Congress and the President are in agreement that the current immigration policy in place, the 1986 artifact known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), is badly broken and requires serious reform.  So it is timely to recall a few fundamental facts that get lost among all the talk by the immigration “experts”, many of whom appear to suffer from short-term memory loss.  And, as well, I offer three low-cost reforms that will greatly improve national security along our border with Mexico.

Any American historian worth their salt will remind us that we are a nation of immigrants.  Regardless of country of origin, immigrants over the course of the last three centuries have established a legacy of lasting contributions that have allowed the United States to excel on a variety of fronts.  But at the same time human nature, regardless of country of origin, has also repeated itself time and again in the form of blatant discrimination against new immigrants by those who came before them.  The Mayflower clearly must have had to been the size of the Titanic times ten to transport all of those Americans who now claim a heritage dating to Plymouth Rock.

But rarely, in spite of the viciousness of the stereotypes frequently directed at recent immigrants, have we made it so difficult, legally or illegally, for a fair shot at the American Dream. Those in Mexico who cannot qualify for the relatively small number of legal visas, nor bribe their way by way of the mordida, literally the bite, now face 24,000 Border Patrol Agents, drones, a 650 mile long wall that is in many places more than 20 feet high, sophisticated camera and sensor systems, and excruciating death from heat exhaustion.  Last year 463 illegal immigrants died just trying to illegally cross the Mexican border

A good part of this discrimination is the legacy of IRCA and the unwillingness of our national politicians to tackle a massive problem that simply will not go away.  Since President W. Bush was close to a labor management deal just before the events of 9/11, federal immigration initiatives have been few and far between.  One result of this federal lethargy is that state legislatures eventually moved into the political void.  But local politicians’ slew of legal answers to broken federal policy, beginning in Arizona and quickly spreading to both other border and non-border states, did little but further damage our weak economy and generate even more stereotypes about recent immigrants.

It is the so-called Dreamers, the children of illegal immigrants, who best seized the imagination of many Americans by simply revealing the core humanity of their lives in their new country.  Risking immediate deportation by identifying themselves as illegal, these sons and daughters of immigrants-who never themselves chose to immigrate-bravely began telling their individual stories to anyone who would listen.  Frequently crossing the border before they reached the age of ten, these children criminalized worked hard in public school to learn English and get good grades but then, after graduating from high school, ran squarely into a wall as thick as any concrete border buttress.  Coming out of the shadows en masse, all that these children of illegal immigrants asked for was a chance to continue to work hard and to build a secure, safe, and legal life in a place far different than their country of origin.

The story of the Dreamers, and the Obama’s presidential mandate allowing them to legally remain two years within our borders, is a story that most Americans found not just credible but compelling.  Again, unless you are a Native American or brought here as a slave, how could the personal stories of Dreamers not undermine the stereotypical sludge thrown at this generation of new immigrants? Dreamers were able to humanize the impact of bad federal immigration legislation and, in so doing, demonstrate that IRCA excelled at wasting human lives in a country whose history is filled by achievements of immigrants from Albert Einstein to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As a nation of immigrants we should be proud of this legacy of achievements and contributions.  Next month when the Senate debates immigration reform, let us constantly remind our elected politicians of their responsibility to negotiate new immigration laws finally bringing sanity and fairness to all Americans and, as well, to those who would choose to become new Americans.

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